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Wandering In Her Mind

Ah, the poetry chapbook. These mini-books, often between fifteen and thirty five pages, can be a delicate reminder of what we love, a toe-dip in the pool of a specific writer’s relationship with language. Often they are themed; they tend to have a preciousness. They fit well in even the smallest of purses. They offer up poetic hors d’oeuvres. Tasty imagistic nuggets.

Wandering In My Mind: Poems by Laura Smith (Finishing Line Press, $14)

Now, forget everything I wrote above. This summer I met a chapbook that, despite its scant twenty-four pages and the most delicate of covers– a 19th century botanical illustration of plant and bird– is meaty and substantial, a sensual and narrative feast that satisfies, rather than teases, the reader. In Wandering in My Mind, Michigan poet Laura Smyth parses nature in all its grandeur, and the place she has witnessed it intersecting with humanity, whether her loved ones or strangers.

These poems, that often appear to address minutiae – an evening, a moment at a lily pond, watching animals at a zoo or a walk by Lake Superior with her daughter, open up their aperture to the whole universe, and some of the poems, like “String Theory” and “String Theory II” start with the largest universal themes and then button themselves to the particular. I don’t know about you, but I adore a buttoned-down universal theme.

Examples. The poem “One Evening With Erin”, a poem about moments, the way the a “leafless maple at dusk” is “held to the sky by three fat sparrows” becomes an exploration of how we learn, how a child eyes the birds and “then explains everything.” It is a poem in which physical laws intrude, “the air becomes solid” — and we watch the poet watch a six-year-old watch birds and see in that moment all of everything.

In One Instance, a poem that by name takes on the smallest syllable of time, Smyth describes how she is spat upon by an apparently homeless man and then takes this experience to the hilt, the largest aperture of the whole book, with the line “In an instant the day ended.” “Don’t trust my body:/ a neighborhood consumed by fear,/burning and rebuilding,/ not wasting any tissue.

In this poem — which like a number of poems in the chapbook, visits the topic of homelessness and desperation and how that state can translate to violence and discomfort — we see how a stranger violation of the smallest nature can batter all faith, all comfort, the poet’s life-world.

An example of the other sort of poem in the book, the already fully-opened aperture poem, that astonishes, is “Little we see in nature that is ours…” It is a poem about light and dark, the ways nature intrudes upon the senses and the way, inside of this experience of the natural world, we grope for human connection. Anyone with a love of the implied metaphor will shiver at the images in this poem, which is sectioned into seven parts. “Darkness so complete I feel the stars’ combustion” begins section one; “Moonlight spreads too thinly over pasture,” begins section four. “Damp night air flaps at my screen,” opens section five. I am a sucker for these kinds of personified living moments. I could drink a case of these poems, to cite another great American wordsmith, and still be on my feet. Yes, the singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell continously sprang to mind reading the poems in this collection. I was trying to pin down why when it came to me — both marry the highest and most enthralling images to troubling yet beautiful narratives.

This is a little book with big contents, and in this regard a fabulous poetry bargain. I carry it around daily and dive in for slow laps in the poems whenever I find myself stuck in some mundune place– a line at the grocery store, the waiting room at the dentist. And when I do I cannot help but wonder what the poet would do with these sorts of moments, what elevated place she could take them. It is a good, good trick.

In the interest of open disclosure, I want to mention here that I went to graduate school with Laura Smyth, a century or so ago. (No, really, it was in the last century.) I follow her work with real interest. This chapbook, Wandering In My Mind, is the very proof I need to confirm a belief I hold that talent is a permanent feature in creative people. And it waxes as we age. It ages too, like wine.

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